11/01/2013 - 06:45

Harmony through redistribution

A central tension underlies several of this Roundtable’s essays. It is the idea that climate change must be mitigated but, as mitigation is pursued, the poorest people’s right to energy access must not be undermined. How can these two imperatives, apparently in competition, be simultaneously addressed? My answer is that they can be addressed through redistribution of wealth—but not through a capitalist development model.

Development as it’s currently practiced, far from solving the climate problem and meeting the needs of the poor, is harming the poor. It is on its way to killing Mother Nature. Capitalist development does not concern itself with nature or human beings, but only with profits for corporations and elites. This holds true in both the developed and developing worlds.

The last few decades have witnessed a great deal of economic growth, including in many developing countries, but poverty has not been eradicated. Does eradication of poverty seem an unrealistic goal? It really isn’t—as long as redistribution of wealth is the basis on which poverty eradication is pursued. According to a study recently published by the Center for Global Development, eliminating poverty would require redistribution equal to only 0.2 percent of global gross domestic product, if poverty’s threshold is set at $1.25 a day. Ending poverty with the threshold set at $2 a day would require redistribution equal to only 1 percent of global GDP. (But how realistic a threshold is $2 a day? Have you ever tried to live on $2 a day?)

If the capitalist development paradigm hasn’t eradicated poverty during times of strong growth, it seems unrealistic to believe that it will do so now, when many of the world’s major economies are trapped in chronic crisis. In fact, capitalist development seems more likely to increase inequality further—in the developed and developing worlds alike. In the United States, according to The Economist, the richest 1 percent of the population has reaped 95 percent of the economic gains achieved during the recovery from the Great Recession. The Hindu reports that in India, between 1983 and 2012, consumption among the poorest 20 percent of urban residents stagnated or increased only marginally, while consumption among the top decile increased by more than 30 percent. This pattern held true even during the country’s periods of strongest economic growth.

Overcoming old logic. Ultimately, no contradiction exists between addressing climate change and addressing the needs of the poor. All that’s required is to abandon development as it is currently practiced and instead focus on redistributing wealth and achieving harmony with nature.

Elites, of course, can be expected to fight with all their might to preserve their privileges—even though these privileges come at the expense of nature and the rest of humanity. Elite efforts to protect privilege account for much of what occurs in international climate negotiations.

It’s not that the rich are evil. It’s that their behavior is determined by the logic of capitalism. If a capitalist doesn’t maximize his profits, he becomes a loser in the market. To avoid this fate, he is willing to exploit nature and other human beings.

So redistribution is really just a first step—if the logic of capitalism is not overcome, that logic will soon reassert itself and wealth will become concentrated again. Overcoming the logic of capitalism will not be an easy task. But it is the only way that equilibrium with nature, including in the climate realm, can be restored.